Friday, September 04, 2009

I Should Go to France Again

It's been ten years. Even on that occasion I was only there for four days, and just a single night in Paris. I suspect it has changed even more since then than it had since I had previously been there in 1990, which at the time had seemed to me considerably. Become less distinctly itself, as I understood it; more chains, more mass-produced food and imported clothing, more English everywhere, more sleek computerized machines, fast trains, less cafe lounging and 2 hour lunches. Of course, I am sure one can still find a spot here and there where whatever particular quality one thinks of as embodying something of the "real France/Paris" yet exists. I remember with great vividness my last meal there in '99. Certainly it was nothing special culinary-wise--a automat-looking type of restaurant on the Boulevard Montparnasse with plate glass walls, and I had the generic tourist meal of steak-frites, haricots verts (string beans), a carafe or two of house wine and a creme brulee and a coffee, which I never drink at home, for dessert. All of this food was excellent despite the inauspicious setting. It was late afternoon. I was catching an overnight bus to Germany around 8 or 9. While I don't like arriving in cities at 6 or 8 in the morning after riding overnight, I do like leaving places in the evening after a hurried and slightly melancholy final meal--earlier in the same trip before taking the boat to France I had had an outstanding boiled feast right out of Dickens or Samuel Johnson in a well-appointed but fairly tired-looking and empty old pub in Portsmouth, England. The afternoon was overcast, very gray, and as I was sitting by the window on a platform raised slightly above the level of the street I had an excellent view of the traffic, all of which happened to fit my mood perfectly at the moment. And that was the last hour I was there, growing now on many years ago.

I was reminded of this recently because my public library was having one of those book sales where they discard their old books that no one checks out anymore and that are clogging up their storage area for 50 cents or a dollar. There were several that I resisted at the time on the basis that they were too cringingly bourgeois which I regret not taking now--one of Joseph Campbell's books, three volumes of Will Durant, and an anthology of Robert Benchley/New Yorker/Vanity Fair type articles from the 1930s, all in glorious 50 year old hardcover, the value of which would have greatly exceeded the $5 I would have had to pay for them--but anyway, I did splurge on a couple of big photo books, which is a type of book that is underrepresented in my collection, one of Turin, of all places, and one titled France: A Photographic Journey. The pictures are professional, and therefore pleasant enough, and evoke the more traditional, less corporate-managed-looking epoch of European life that Americans especially crave. Initially looking at the French book I guessed that it must be from the 70s, but it was actually published in 1991. 1991 looks like it was an awfully long time ago in these pictures. I had a similar impression when I saw a 1988 Woody Allen movie (Another Woman, if you must know) a few months back, which I think I wrote about on here. I am sure this sense of mild astonishment that I feel is because these particular years don't seem very long ago to me, even in the way that say, 1983 does. I was 18 in 1988 and 21 in 1991, and I do not think of myself as being much different now from what I was then (indeed, judging by my Facebook page, my best friends are all the same people they were then, and I haven't substantially seen most of them since about that time). I lived in that, even in the West, grayer, shabbier, more low-tech world, mostly tangentially, and it certainly was all of those things, yet at the same time it doesn't look or seem real anymore. Did people really sit in those dingy bars with full of smoke with filthy tablecloths full of cigarette burns? I know I did, and I liked them, but the way people seem to act now I can't believe anybody else ever tolerated it. Surely the French wine and cheese industries have been modernized since 1991? It is impossible they still have some sweaty guy in a faded tweed jacket with stray pieces of straw hanging all over it testing the fermenting grapes in some handblown-looking device out in the barn, isn't it? I mean, even if they still do that, I don't think people can pull it off naturally anymore. They're too conscious now of their work being a curiosity. And then of course there is all the evidence of real live cool people, within my adult memory even, being perfectly content and in the moment without cell phones or any other beeping equipment in sight. We will never see their like again.

France is a big country once you get in it. It's the size of Texas practically, except without several thousand square miles of empty prairie you can speed through without losing the effect too badly. It would take years to see any substantial part of it. I've seen scarcely any of it. LeHavre, where I was stranded for the better part of a day until the banks in America opened and I could make a withdrawal (I am sure this system, at least, has improved since then), Rouen, Giverney, and I have dicked around Paris for a few days, usually feeling that I was not really wholly there, except for a couple of isolated moments such as the restaurant and walking around the square where the Madeleine church is at night. This is a 1830s-40s church, which is an era in French history that I find particularly interesting, it is in the style of a Greco-Roman temple, which I also like, it is kind of gloomy, not everyone likes it, and perhaps most importantly, I came upon it unexpectedly, and when I was alone--I was wandering around semi-aimlessly--so it was especially pleasing to me, and for a few minutes, at least, I did feel that something of it was mine. Of course now I am rather old, so it might be unseemly for me to try to recapture these kind of youthful experiences, and places like Paris only have use for such middle-aged people as are past the discovery and romanticism phases of their lives and have something of their own substance to contribute to the life of the great city. There is also, it seems to me a kind of vogue that insinuates that Paris is not challenging, or that one can go there too often and fall into a vapid rut, and that the thing to do for the vital spirit is to go somewhere exotic, and, if one can cut it, chaotic, the more the better. I don't subscribe to this opinion, though I am certainly not against someone's going to Nigeria if they are really feeling that that is where they need to be. Paris is not physically or even morally challenging, perhaps, but it seems to me there is a good deal of accumulated thought, wisdom, art, lore, and so on, that is not so easily mastered, and is well worth mastering. I don't think any sentient person can go there too much.

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